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George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759)
Arias from Alcina (1735)
Tornami a vagheggiar
Giulio Cesare (1724)
Non disperar, chi sa?
Sinfonia act 2
V’adoro pupille
Piangero, la sorte mia
Da tempeste il legno infranto
Rinaldo (1711)
Combatti da forte
Sinfonia act1 scene 7
Lascia ch’io pianga
Bel piacere
Emma Matthews (Soprano)
New Zealand Chamber Orchestra/Donald Armstrong
Recorded March 2001, Brierly Theatre, Wellington College, New Zealand
ARTWORKS AW029 [45.49]
This attractive recital of Handel arias features Emma Matthews, the English-born rising star of Opera Australia. She made her debut with them in 1993 as Damigella in Monteverdi’s ‘L’Incoronazione di Poppea’ and her wide range of roles with them has since included Morgana ("Alcina"), Almirena ("Rinaldo"), Ilia ("Idomeneo"), Cherubino and Susanna ("La Nozze di Figaro"), Blonde ("Die Entführung aus dem Serail"), Marie ("La Fille du Regiment"), Oscar ("Un Ballo in Maschera") and Sophie ("Der Rosenkavalier", to Lisa Gasteen’s Marschallin), besides roles in Sweeney Todd and contemporary operas, and she is due to sing the title role in "Lulu" next year with Opera Australia.

This CD was recorded in 2001, after the artists had finished a tour of New Zealand. Sensibly they concentrate on just three of Handel’s heroines. Allowing Emma Matthews to reprise her stage performances as Morgana and Almirena, the recital contains three of Almirena’s arias from "Rinaldo" and four of Cleopatra’s arias from "Giulio Cesare" along with the overtures and sinfonias from both operas and the CD opens with Morgana’s ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from "Alcina", the bravura aria with which she concludes Act 1. With a responsive artist, this is an admirable way of constructing a programme of Handel arias as it allows the singer to gradually construct the character before our eyes. Handel’s operatic arias, based on the idea of displaying contrasting affekts, only allow us to appreciate Cleopatra’s ‘infinite variety’ once we have heard all of her 7 arias. There is no question of a single aria providing a microcosm of a character the way an aria can in 19th century opera.

Emma Matthews’s attractive voice is warm, vibrant, evenly produced and she shrugs off the technical challenges with admirable bravura and consistent ease. Rarely have I heard singing in Handel sound so beautiful and so natural. I could say effortless, which it is, but she has the ability to use coloratura passages for dramatic purpose, as in the middle section of ‘Piangerò, la sorte mia’ from "Giulio Cesare".

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra and conductor Donald Armstrong. They provide efficient, neat accompaniments with a style of Handel playing that seems a little dated. It is, of course, unfair to compare them to one of the many recordings on period instruments, but Sir Charles Mackerras’s achievements with the English National Opera Orchestra on his recording of "Julius Caesar" make the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra sound rather stolid and their textures rather dense. Listening to their different versions of the overture to "Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar)" is instructive, both are played at pretty much the same sort of tempo, Mackerras succeeds in getting his English National Opera forces to deliver the music with a crispness, sense of style and more of a feeling of bows off the string. And, I think, that this is the essential problem. Despite their firm (and not unstylish) delivery, the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra performances seem to remain firmly rooted in 19th century performance techniques. On repeated listening this starts to sound a little heavy and you keep feeling that it is holding Emma Matthews back from a more complete characterisation of the roles. Armstrong’s speeds in general are middle of the road, rarely risking much.

In the opening aria on the CD, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, remarkably the performers manage to sound a little rushed in the middle section, but Emma Matthews throws off the pyrotechnics with remarkable ease. Faced with such virtuosity it seems churlish to complain, but I wanted more characterisation, perhaps a greater sense of teasing. The da capo section is freely ornamented without sounding forced. Here, as in all the da capo sections on the recording, I am not fond of the modern tendency to freely recompose Handel’s vocal line. We do have a handful of arias from "Ottone" written out with ornaments in Handel’s hand. I am not sure that they have ever been recorded, but it would prove instructive as they stick more strictly to the written tessitura of the vocal part and the ornamentation fills in the gaps between the written vocal line, rather than actively changing it. If Emma Matthews’ ornaments are sometimes a little too elaborate, at least you rarely get the feeling that she is seriously changing the vocal line’s tessitura.

In ‘Non disperar, chi sa?’ (Cleopatra’s first Act 1 aria from "Giulio Cesare"), Mackerras and Valerie Masterton take it slower, their version lasts 50 seconds longer. Rather than sounding more ponderous, Mackerras gives the orchestra a delicacy which is entirely lacking in the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra. This allows Valerie Masterson to be far more teasing than Emma Matthews, despite her showing an admirable command of the coloratura at the faster speed.

In ‘V’adoro pupille’, (Cleopatra’s first Act 2 aria) Armstrong and the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra seem a little immune to Handel’s ravishing orchestration. At a tempo somewhat slower than Mackerras, they can sound a bit leaden though Emma Matthews sounds lovely, but I not quite ravishing enough. After all, in this aria she is setting out deliberately to ensnare Caesar.

In ‘Piangero, la sorte mia’ (Cleopatra’s first Act 3 aria) Mackerras’s version is a miracle of transparency and considerably slower than the New Zealand forces, who sound rather stolid. And in the final aria from "Giulio Cesare", ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ I would have liked a more pointed, sharper delivery from the orchestra and the singer, both a little lacking in light and shade.

But we can end on a more positive note. Both soloist and orchestra sound crisply martial in Almirena’s first aria from "Rinaldo", ‘Combatti da forte’. And Almirena’s final two arias are lovely. In ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’, for once, the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra find the requisite delicacy and transparency and allow Emma Matthews to provide a moving vocal line.

I enjoyed this disk, it is an admirable debut disk, with some stunning Handel singing. What we do not get is a feeling of Cleopatra’s infinite variety, most of the arias seem a little under-characterised. The most successful seem to be those that she has actually performed on stage, but I think in all of them she is held back by the stylistically outdated performances by the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra under Donald Armstrong. I would love to hear Emma Matthews again in Handel, perhaps even a complete opera. But next time, please could it be with a more period-aware accompaniment.

Robert Hugill

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